Worth it: Bushwacking in the backcountry livens up a hike

Wednesday, August 26, 2015 - 10:58
  • Near Pioneer Ridge Trail in summer. Without a trail, bushwhacking to the ridge would be a grueling, day-long ordeal.

There’s nothing more grueling than climbing uphill through an obstacle course of the kind of dense brush that would protect a king’s castle better than high walls or a moat.

I’m referring, of course, to the kind of brush found in Alaska’s backcountry: thick alder bushes bent in arcs from the weight of winter snows; clumps of prickly Devil’s Club; patches of stinging Cow Parsnip; thorny wild rose bushes; and tangles of high grass.

Any sane person would ask, “Why even try to go through it?”

With sweat stinging my eyes; aphids and other insects that I’ve scraped off bushes clinging to wet skin inside my shirt; one ear smarting from a branch that defiantly snapped back at me; and pack straps digging painfully into my neck; I’ve often asked myself the same question.

It boils down to this: the desire to go where others have not.

Or in some cases, to get to the base of a mountain I’d like to climb.

I know, bushwhacking sounds lame. In my own defense, I bushwhack much less often today than I did in my wilder, youthful days.

But there are still occasions when I find it necessary to tough it out, or “John Wayne” it, as I used to say, and boldly go where few people or beasts have gone before.

But I should say at the outset: I will invariably walk an extra mile to avoid brush.

Anywhere you go in southcentral Alaska, particularly near sea level, you’ll find that our mountains – the Chugach Mountains for example – are flanked by a nearly impenetrable barrier of brush that seems to go on forever, often more than mile and nearly 2,000 feet in elevation.

Because I enjoy getting from Point A (brush purgatory) to Point B (alpine nirvana) I have developed an internal BAS, or brush avoidance system.

Before setting out on summer and autumn hikes, I like to try and view the slope from a distance, identifying the locations of breaks in the brush thickets. And those breaks are generally there. Areas from winter avalanches are often clear of brush. I follow high timber whenever possible, because there is usually no brush beneath the trees.

During this first 2,000 feet, I try to remain on ridges rather than down in the draws or gullies. Those areas of water runoff are where our archenemies, Devil’s Clubs and Cow Parsnip, lurk.

Pro tip: I’ve learned over time, however, that you can move directly through a very thick patch of Devils Club without being stuck if you proceed slowly, but I don’t recommend it.

It’s inadvisable to wear short-sleeve shirts and shorts while bushwhacking. It’s also helpful to pull oneself upward by grabbing alder branches, but be sure to wear gloves.

Bushwhacking difficulty varies significantly, depending on the time of year. Autumn is optimal, after the leaves have dropped from bushes and trees, but before the first significant snowfall.

Another good time is spring, after snow has melted and before everything greens up.

When I’m planning a hiking route, I look at a hillside and ask myself, “What route would moose, bear or other critters take?”

Sometimes game trails are good ways to score some distance and elevation. These trails always seem to peter out, however, which widens the search for the next trail.

When I break through a bad stretch of brush and reach a clearing, I look right and left to see whether a traverse will lead to another relatively brush-free area headed upward.

To spot the best route, my BAS has to work overtime on the ascent.

Descents are much easier. From above, one can detect clearings that are rarely visible from below.

My BAS won’t prevent me from getting lost, so I only bushwhack from one highly visible feature to another: lake to mountain ridge and back; road or established trail to ridge and back; etc. I carry a compass but not a GPS, so I avoid going high if the clouds roll in and obscure visibility. That’s happened on occasion, and I’ve built rock cairns to mark my descent point.

But overall, in my Point A to Point B bushwhacking, identifiable features have been so prominent (lake, river, road) that I can’t get lost.

An important rule in bushwhacking is to make a lot noise to alert moose and bears. If someone heard me thrashing uphill through mazes of undergrowth, shouting out an endless litany of meaningless phrases, they would certainly declare there is someone on the loose more dangerous than a bear. I’ve never encountered one of Alaska’s large creatures while bushwhacking, and I attribute it to a strong set of lungs.

When you finally emerge from what from is no less than a living hell, you’re greeted with a breeze that drives away the bugs. The view opens up. And for the first time in hours, you can actually see where you’re going. Hiking over the alpine tundra and higher, on the rocky slopes, seems effortless. Once on the ridges and unimpeded by brush, you can hike blissfully for miles.

Don’t get me wrong. I like trails and will almost always begin a hike from one of them. Compared to many locations in the Lower 48 however, Alaska doesn’t have many established trails. And, some are only social trails that won’t remain sustainable (drainage, erosion, etc.) for the long haul. I wish there were more funds budgeted within State Parks for trails. But all budgets are under siege during this period of low oil prices (except for downtown legislative offices).

Then again, even when Alaska was flush with petro dollars, trails weren’t much of a priority.

I used to proclaim, “The best trails are those we make ourselves.” That’s not necessarily true. There are many trails in southcentral Alaska and on the Kenai Peninsula that are premier experiences.

But sometimes a short, well thought-out bushwhack can offer a bit of spice and surprise to an outing.


Frank Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River and can be contacted at [email protected].

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